Questions of power and process after harassment claim at FIFA

FIFA's logo is seen in front of its headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland November 18, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
Miguel Macedo had shown his value to football’s top leader for months. Now, on the morning of Gianni Infantino’s first day as FIFA president, Macedo would demonstrate his connections, and his usefulness, once again.

Minutes after Infantino set foot inside FIFA’s glass-and-steel headquarters on the first day of his presidency in February 2016, he was met by a collection of former stars: World Cup winners, national team legends, Champions League heroes. All of them had been invited by Macedo to play alongside the new president in a small tournament on one of the manicured fields outside. Infantino, wearing an armband, would join them on the field as their captain.

And so a motif of Infantino’s presidency was set. The FIFA Legends, as the program of former players turned FIFA representatives came to be known, was born that day. Its importance has only grown in the years since, serving as ballast for Infantino’s image as he works to reshape world football, restore FIFA’s influence and refill its bank accounts.

For years, the job of running this vital public relations resource has fallen to Macedo, a Portuguese sports agent who serves Infantino as ally, confidant and occasional workout partner.

But Macedo has retained his post and his proximity to power, current and former FIFA officials said, even after an internal human resources panel and an outside mediator found that he had sexually harassed a junior staff member, and amid other complaints about his behavior.

The harassment case, which has never been made public, is well known within the halls of FIFA. Top football officials, including the organisation’s No. 2, were informed in person in summer 2019 that a complaint had been made about Macedo to the organisation’s head of human resources. That official led an internal investigation that eventually upheld an accusation of sexual harassment.

By then, the outside mediator had concluded the same. In her letter to FIFA, she quoted from text messages that she said “sufficiently prove” that Macedo engaged in verbal sexual harassment. The New York Times has since learned of another complaint about Macedo, an incident last year that offended Qatari officials enough that they asked FIFA to stop sending him to their country.

FIFA declined to make Macedo available for an interview about the accusations this week and in a statement Thursday did not reply to specific questions about the case and how it was handled.

“FIFA takes any allegation of wrongdoing in the workplace extremely seriously and has robust reporting mechanisms in place,” it said. “These measures include the opportunity to speak to an external ombudsperson. FIFA will not comment any further.”

The woman who filed the complaint eventually left FIFA. She is still not sure if her former boss was ever punished.

A DREAM JOB

The 30-year-old woman who filed the complaint, whose identity is known to the Times and to FIFA officials, said that she was excited to move to Macedo’s team after securing a transfer from FIFA’s legal department in fall 2018. The new post offered the chance of more travel and, for a devoted fan of the game, the opportunity to work with some of its biggest stars.

It would also mean working closely with Macedo, who controls the FIFA Legends’ multimillion-dollar annual budget and directs the program’s staff. Perhaps his most important role, though, is that he maintains the football body’s relationships with the dozens of living football legends who are ferried around the world — at FIFA expense — for appearances as telegenic and media-savvy cheerleaders for Infantino’s projects.

Quickly after taking up her new post, however, the woman said she was subjected to inappropriate behavior by Macedo, including lewd comments, flirtatious text messages and even suggestions about how she should dress. Macedo frequently invited her to dine or to have drinks alone. Once, on a trip to the 2019 Women’s World Cup, he texted her urgently after midnight and demanded she come to his hotel suite. She declined.

Unsure about what to do — she was employed by the FIFA Legends on a short-term contract, and Macedo was her direct manager — the woman said she developed strategies to deflect the unwanted attention. At one point, she told the Times, she even made up an imaginary boyfriend.

On other occasions, she simply roamed the halls of FIFA to ensure that she would not have to be alone with Macedo in the office, or placed her cellphone in airplane mode so he could not contact her, something she said he did after a meeting in late 2018 that had been arranged as a performance review.

It was at the end of that meeting, the woman said, as she and Macedo left a conference room, that Macedo cupped her buttocks with one hand and then leaned in and whispered a provocative remark about her body.

“For me,” the woman said, “that was one of the worst days.”

There were no witnesses to the incident, but a former colleague of the woman contacted by the Times described being told about it at the time. FIFA did not respond to questions about the incident.

The verbal harassment, though, continued for months, the woman said, before peaking at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. By then, she said, Macedo’s comments and messages had become more and more insistent. In one text message, sent after midnight, Macedo called her to his hotel room. In another, he suggested they head out for a “secret” night of drinking and dancing in Paris.

But some of Macedo’s messages, the woman said, also contained troubling language. In one seen by the Times, Macedo said he wished “to tame” his subordinate. In another, he told her that “you owe me obedience.”

All the while, Macedo held out the prospect that he could provide her with opportunities for promotion or even a permanent job at FIFA.

A FORMAL COMPLAINT

By the time the tournament ended, and after speaking with her mother, the woman resolved to take action. In late July, less than a month after the US women’s team lifted the World Cup trophy in Lyon, France, amid chants of “Equal Pay!” she approached the head of women’s football at FIFA, Sarai Bareman, and informed her of the situation. The woman asked if Bareman would accompany her to make a complaint to Kimberly Morris, a Canadian lawyer who was FIFA’s human resources chief.

The meeting was a disappointment, the woman said. Morris, according to her account, seemed more concerned about the employee’s behavior and at one point suggested that she consider moving on to another job. “I took such a long time to come forward and explain my case, and it felt like I was being brushed aside,” she said.

FIFA did not respond to a request to make Morris available to present her own recollection of the meeting.

It also declined to answer specific questions about the organisation’s delay in opening a formal investigation; about any actions it took regarding the woman’s complaints of workplace harassment; or about any actions it took after an internal inquiry and an outside mediator substantiated some of them.

At the time of the woman’s meeting with Morris, FIFA was fending off claims of sexual abuse of women’s players by influential men by declaring that it “has a zero-tolerance policy on human rights violations and unequivocally condemns all forms of gender-based violence.”Frustrated by how her allegations had been handled, the woman started to speak with other senior FIFA officials about her concerns. Weeks later, Joyce Cook, then FIFA’s chief member associations officer — who was described by the organisation’s website as a “passionate advocate of equality and inclusion in sports” — felt sufficiently moved by what she had heard to accompany the woman to a second formal meeting with Morris.

This time, notes were taken, and a process of investigating the complaint was begun. Statements were collected, including from a male colleague of the woman, who said he had witnessed some of Macedo’s improper conduct firsthand.

By then, news of the dispute had spread throughout FIFA’s executive suite, with some officials frustrated at how the process was playing out. Tomaz Vesel, FIFA’s former audit and compliance chief, said he raised the matter with Morris and Fatma Samoura, whose role as secretary-general makes her the equivalent of FIFA’s CEO. Infantino’s chief of staff, Mattias Grafstrom, was also made aware of the complaint, according to an email reviewed by the Times. But months passed, and as 2020 neared, no action had been taken.

“I can be critical about level of preparedness and speed of the process,” Vesel told the Times. “I think for someone who is an alleged victim, we need to react really fast and correct. I didn’t notice some kind of tough preparedness for being really fast.”

To make matters worse, plans set out by Morris to move the staff member to another office so that she did not have to come face to face with Macedo never materialised.

“I just want to inform you that Miguel Macedo came back to the office surprisingly today and it is becoming quite unbearable for me to be here,” the woman wrote in one email to Morris. “I don’t know how we can continue in this unhealthy environment any longer.”

It was several months after she first complained, in fact, before FIFA arranged for the woman to meet with Nirmala Dias, a mediator the organisation hired in 2017 to deal with internal conflicts.

Dias produced a carefully worded, two-page report. She pointed out that while she had heard only the complainant’s side of events, there was enough documentary evidence to “sufficiently prove the verbal sexual harassment” and also to substantiate that the staffer “was given the prospect of a career in FIFA.”

Dias declined to comment about her work with FIFA. “As independent mediators and attorneys at law we are of course bound to confidentiality obligations regarding our ombuds cases,” she wrote in an email.

The document she prepared, though, sent to FIFA six days after the woman’s contract as a Legends staff member expired, recommended that FIFA provide the woman with an alternative position. “She was repeatedly given hopes to receive a permanent position, probably purely for personal reasons,” Dias wrote to FIFA.

No offer ever came.

The complaints about Macedo, however, continued. In February 2021, the Times has learned, a young woman working at the Club World Cup in Qatar told her bosses that Macedo brushed his hands through her hair before commenting on her appearance as she stood at an event with colleagues.

Qatari football officials raised the issue with FIFA, according to people familiar with the incident and the tournament organisers’ response, asking that they no longer send Macedo to the country. FIFA rejected that request, according to the same people, but told the Qataris that Macedo had been warned about his conduct.

INCOMPLETE ANSWERS

The incident in Qatar took place more than a year after FIFA received the mediator’s report in October 2019 and long after the staff member’s contract had expired. It was also a year after FIFA triggered its formal complaints procedure regarding Macedo’s conduct toward the woman who worked in his office by forming a three-member committee that included Morris; Emilio García, FIFA’s legal head; and an outside lawyer.

The committee spoke with the complainant, Macedo and a longtime FIFA staff member whom documents listed as a witness in the case. Of the three, only Macedo remains at FIFA.

Months later, on Feb 25, 2020, the accuser, now a former staff member, was informed by telephone that her complaint had been upheld. She said she had to demand written confirmation several times before FIFA supplied her with a statement that, she said, only prompted further anger: The sexual harassment complaint was upheld only in relation to a single comment made by Macedo in a meeting in December 2018.

The committee’s decision made no reference to any of the text messages she had provided and did not include an apology. It did note Macedo would be punished in accordance with FIFA’s rules. But — unlike the transparency it has shown in numerous other cases involving wrongdoing by football officials — it did not stipulate what the punishment would be.

“I didn’t know what the sanction was, which for me, feels like it was no sanction at all,” the woman said.

Infuriated with the lack of clarity, the former staff member, who has found another job in football, said she had written to FIFA asking for details about the penalties it imposed on Macedo. So far, she has not received a reply.

She is now based in Qatar, working with the organisers for this year’s World Cup, where she frequently comes into contact with many of her former FIFA colleagues. At a FIFA-sponsored tournament for Arab nations held in the country in December, she said, she even saw Macedo. He was there with a group of the now-ubiquitous FIFA Legends.

“I wish to not see these people again, but I see them all the time,” she said, “and I think, wow, they’re all his friends.

“I feel like I really didn’t achieve anything, a lot of fighting for nothing. I know he is laughing about it.”

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